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Interdisciplinary Research Clusters 2021-2022

The core of the Programme’s multidisciplinary research activities are the interdisciplinary research clusters (IRCs).

Starting in the autumn 2020, the European University Institute has launched four interdisciplinary research clusters focused on key societal challenges that are reshaping the agenda of social sciences and the humanities. Now there are five of them, bringing together different disciplinary expertise and knowledge and promoting their systematic interaction in thematic encounters around objects of common concern.

Led by EUI professors from different departments, the IRCs are organized on a multidisciplinary basis and include Max Weber Fellows as well as other scholars based at EUI or visiting. Their activities include presentations of work in progress as well as discussion of more general research issues.

The Interdisciplinary Research Clusters for the academic year 2021-2022 are:

1)     Democracy in the 21st century (IRC)

2)     Inequality, welfare and social justice (IRC)

3)     Crisis of expert knowledge and authority (IRC)

4)     Technological change and society (IRC)

5)     Environmental Challenges and Climate Change Governance (IRC)

Democracy in the 21st Century

In the first two decades of the 21st century, the broad, public identification with democratic values and practices – seen as unassailable since the Second World War– has been challenged in profound ways. While apparently still supreme as a political principle, democracy is seen to be eroded by new economic disparities, by pressures to circumscribe the perimeter of rights, and by the weakening of its societal roots. There are widespread fears that democracy has been hollowed out, with the meaning of democracy, which has always been a contested concept, being questioned and mistrusted.

The tension between democratic representation and technocratic governance is unprecedented, while decisions are made by sheltered elites who pursue economic and functional imperatives. At the same time, various forms of illiberal democracy, authoritarianism, and oligarchy induce many to think that they can perform better than classical liberal democracies. With the decline of most forms of political intermediation, processes of individual empowerment and mobilization—also sustained by new technologies that reshape the context and the dynamics of political persuasion—point to the privatization of political socialization and participation. Combined, these factors nurture the perception that representative democracy should no longer be accepted as the gold standard for good governance.

In response to these challenges, we propose an interdisciplinary inquiry on the making and conditions of democracy in the 21st century. We believe that only a multi-disciplinary assessment can provide the vital insights that European society will need to re-build the legitimacy of democratic representation, the credibility of political institutions, and the social contract that underpins its sustainability.

We will focus on several sub-themes, to be studied across the four EUI disciplines, both as a long-term perspective and in the present day. These themes include: the spaces and divisions of democracy; democratic participation and institutions; the rule of law; the development of populisms; and the role of, and consequences for, the European Union in the making of democratic institutions and society. 


Leads: Prof. Elias Dinas (RSCAS/SPS), Prof. Lucy Riall (HEC), Prof. Ann Thomson (HEC)

Inequality, Welfare and Social Justice

The steady increase in economic inequality since 1980 in most EU countries and North America is today widely acknowledged as a major challenge for equal opportunities, democratic stability, economic prosperity and social cohesion at the national and supranational levels.

After the postwar era of welfare state expansion, which helped to eradicate old-age poverty, and institutionalized universal access to health care, education and social insurance against unemployment and sickness as a matter of social citizenship rights since the 1959s, progress in social justice have seemingly come to a halt. In some parts of the OECD-world, earnings and benefits have stagnated while the macro economy continued to prosper. Income and wealth inequalities have grown continuously.

What has changed in terms of the life chances of citizens, also in terms of health and life style, gender and wellbeing between the 1980s and today? How did we fare before and after World War II. How come the modern welfare state has not been able to catch up with imbalances in family demography, skill-biased technological change and economic internationalization? What are the implications for 21st century welfare provision and democratic politics?

To address all of these questions and more, we link the long history of (in-)equality to its (historical) economic, social and political causes and consequences, drawing on a wealth of data and multi-disciplinary analyses, including theories of justice and solidarity, ultimately to engage in a wide debate over policy ideas and solutions to contain and overcome the inequality conundrum in rich democracies.


Leads: Prof. thomas Crossley (ECO), Prof. Laura Downs (HEC), Prof. Anton Hemerijck (SPS)

Crisis of Expert Knowledge and Authority

Even after years of study and practical experience the consequences of policies are uncertain. Agreement among experts on the soundness of many policy interventions is greater than realized by the general public, still there is legitimate disagreement. Furthermore, it is not sensible for an individual to invest years of effort in hopes of deciding what the best policies are. Because we cannot sensibly know ourselves what constitutes good policy we must rely on experts.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, we have witnessed an erosion of citizens’ trust in intellectual elites. The role of experts has been questioned. At the same time those who denounce academic expertise and pretend unwillingness to rely on experts follow their own (often self-proclaimed) “experts”. Unfortunately, the reliance on charlatans rather than experts often has profoundly negative consequences.

These issues are of importance to Europe and the EU. We have seen political parties denying expert knowledge on a range of issues from debt, growth, migration, and trade to medicine. These movements have strong popular support indicating that people are fed up with experts, and we must recognize that they are right to distrust experts as many have misbehaved.

The theme group on the crisis of expert knowledge aims to investigate why experts are under siege and what should be done. We seek MWP fellows of all specialties who have an interest in these questions.


Leads: Prof. Peter Drahos (LAW), Prof. David Levine (RSCAS/ECO) and Prof. Stéphane Van Damme (HEC)

Technological Change and Society

Technologies across areas such as information and communication technologies, biotechnologies, robotics, and artificial intelligence present a series of challenges for modern societies: “smart” technologies changes the workplace, the division of resources in society, the formation of social attitudes and opinions, the patterns and dynamic of social interactions, the allocation and exercise of power. This theme group aims to assess the novel social, economic, ethical, and legal questions that arise.

Technological change in the workplace has already contributed to automation in manufacturing, and advances in AI and robotics are likely to exacerbate this and extend it beyond manufacturing. Digital technologies change interactions in society: on the one hand they allow for greater ability to share, acquire and process information, but also enable increased surveillance and manipulation.  New technologies also raise ethical and legal issues, concerning how to prevent both misuse and underuse of technological developments.

This requires the assessment of opportunities and risks related to transformation induced by technologies, and research meant to translate legal/ethical requirements into prescriptions for the design of human-centred technologies or even directives addressed to intelligent artificial systems.

The challenge is to ensure that highly developed technologies remain under human control, contribute to human well-being and autonomy, and are responsive to human values —while their development is also driven by economic, political and military interests. This research requires us to learn from the historical perspective on the connection between science, technology, and society, and to use economic, legal and sociological perspectives to provide insights for the future.


Leads: Prof. Giacomo Calzolari (ECO), Prof.  Nicolas Petit (LAW), and Prof. Giovanni Sartor (LAW)

Environmental Challenges and Climate Change Governance

The challenges associated with climate change are omnipresent. There is overwhelming evidence that human-induced climate change is taking place, yet positions on how to react to this phenomenon are diverse. On a global level, disagreements reflect continuing inequalities between North and South. While representatives of the so-called First World demand energy consumption limitations and environmental protection efforts from countries like China, Brazil and India, representatives of the latter argue that the wealth and power of the Western world has long depended on the availability of cheap raw materials and resources from abroad. The legacies of colonialism and imperialism re-appear through the environmental back door and fuel debates about sustainability.

The struggle to agree on a definition of ‘sustainable development’ has been ongoing since the 1970s, with many of the problems raised but remaining unresolved. Today, many call for the strengthening of global governance mechanisms. This includes the institutionalisation of protections for global public goods, be it through international treaties, trade-related instruments or networks of public and private actors. There is also a growing interest in whether litigation can play a productive role.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the multifaceted problems resulting from ever-increasing population density, deforestation, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution and profound global interconnectedness – not only in finance, economics and culture but also with regard to biological, ecological and environmental factors. The pandemic demonstrates the need for public health strategies that reach beyond national borders.

An interdisciplinary approach is required to address these problems. Research is needed that overcomes compartmentalised categories and embraces an integrated perspective. This cluster provides a forum for collaboration on climate and environmental governance within the EUI, in addition to promoting exchange and joint initiatives with business, government, NGOs and academic colleagues beyond the EUI. The cluster’s activities in 2021 include a seminar series, the organisation of an interdisciplinary workshop and the award of a fellowship to conduct research at the Historical Archives of the European Union (HAEU), which are housed at the EUI.

Leads: Prof. Joanne Scott (LAW), Prof. Corinna Unger (HEC)

Page last updated on 03 August 2021

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